I was genuinely surprised when I realised that a debate organised by the Institute of Education in London (IoE), about the use of evidence-based methods by teachers, had not a single practising teacher on the panel. Yet shortly after posting my thoughts, someone pointed out to me that the IoE is organising a whole series of such debates and there are hardly any teachers involved in any of them.
I find this outrageous. And yet I suspect you think I’m a little eccentric for finding this outrageous. We have all been conditioned into accepting that others speak on our behalf; that this is normal. And yet it is at odds with other professions.
I don’t have an issue with anyone talking about education. I don’t want to silence academics, heads of quangos or think-tank wonks. And I certainly don’t want to push politicians out of the discussion because they, at least, have to take some account of public opinion.
But a discussion made up of only these people misses out on a key perspective. Bureaucrats and academics like to present a front that suggests that all is well, all debates are settled and there is a consensus about how to move forward. They disdain debate on social media which they tend to perceive as rough and uncouth. Yet, we all know what happens when you design education policies around such a consensus: Scotland’s failed Curriculum for Excellence.
For their part, politicians, and their think-tank brains, have political agendas. There is nothing wrong with that but it does mean that ideas about explicit instruction and a powerful curriculum get conflated with back-to-basics rhetoric and talk of the importance of ‘western values’ while, in the other camp, ideas about increased school funding get rolled up with Dewey-inspired teaching methods and the latest education gimmicks. You can see what happens: something the politicians really care about gets associated with something they don’t really understand and so they feel the need to push both.
This is where teachers could add a vital perspective. They could inform the public about what it means to enact some of these ideas. They could knock some of the corners off these political agendas if given the chance. But we are invisible.
A clue comes from one of the few regular outlets for teacher opinions; The Guardian’s Secret Teacher column. Why does it have to be secret? Because many teachers don’t feel safe to speak about their profession. This is why we have so many anonymous teacher bloggers. Some schools, and even state education systems, have social media policies that effectively ban teachers from posting their opinions. This is plainly wrong. There should be a right to professional comment where teachers, and other expert groups, have a right to express their views on areas covered by their expertise provided that they don’t share confidential information. It would be in the public interest because the public would benefit from informed opinion.
But there are also cultural issues. We are so used to the empty chair that the media doesn’t look to teachers for comment. It seeks quotes from, and interviews, supposed experts, many of whom have never taught in a classroom for as much as five minutes. These people are sexier than teachers, it seems.
I’m not sure what the solution is apart from to keep speaking. If it is safe for you to do so, then you should write a blog and you should pitch op-eds to your local and national papers. It’s pretty hard going and you’ll get a lot of rejections, but nobody is going to change the culture for us. Let’s muscle our way into that empty chair and speak for ourselves.